The thread that runs from the brutal police killing of George Floyd through to the toppling of Edward Colston’s statute in Bristol to the renewed calls for Cecil Rhodes to fall – the thread, that is, from Minneapolis, through Bristol, to Oxford - is a straight one. But although the events in Oxford can be understood through the prism of events over the past few weeks, they have much deeper roots, and those roots lie not only in the tortured history of race relations in the US or the slaving history of the British Empire but in vast tectonic shifts in the size and movements of populations. Demography, as so often, is the missing element in the story.
Rhodes believed that the Anglo Saxon came closest to God’s ideal type of all humankind and that God’s desire would be for the English and kindred peoples to have as much sway over as much of the earth as possible. ‘I shall devote the rest of my life to God’s purpose’ Rhodes declared, ‘and help Him to make the world English.’ God, no doubt, was grateful to have Cecil as His little helper. Hubristic this might appear, but from the perspective of Rhodes’ day, it did not seem so unrealistic. While most of the world was stuck in an age-old population rut, the people of the British Isles during the nineteenth century were surging in numbers. Better supply of water and removal of sewage, better public health, improving nutrition and healthcare – in a word, modernity - meant that, while birth rates stayed high, fewer people were dying. The result was the first modern population explosion.
The process of the waning European has only just begun.
Rhodes’s ‘Anglo Saxons’, the children of the British Isles, settled vast continents from North America to Australia, and as far as Rhodes could see, there was no reason they could not settle Africa too. Indigenous peoples seemed to melt away in the face of their advance. (Germs and genocide played their role too.) Despite this vast outpouring of people from Britain, numbers at home almost quadrupled in the course of the nineteenth century. And other European peoples, particularly the Germans and Russians, were not far behind.
But here lies the clue to the undoing of Rhodes’s vision. The so-called Anglo-Saxons only had a temporary lead over their European neighbours. Continentals were just as capable of cleaning up their cities and were soon feeding their people better too. Which meant they in turn saw plunging death rates and booming populations. The challenge this allowed them to present to the global Anglo hegemony of which Rhodes dreamt is, essentially, the story of the first half of the twentieth century.
And then, just as the other people of Europe had been able to catch up with the Brits and Americans, so the rest of the world’s people beyond Europe were able to follow the same course, triggering their own population explosions. Meanwhile, people of European origin began having smaller families and their own population growth slowed, in some cases to a grinding halt. The whole demographic advantage which underpinned the great expansion of people of European origin in the heyday of empire turned out only to be nothing more than a bit of a head start. This has to a considerable extent been the story of the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of this century.
But the process of the waning European has only just begun. A few choice statistics will help to illustrate the point. In 1950 there were around four Hungarians for every Somali. Today there are half as many Somalis again as there are Hungarians. And the UN’s best estimates are that by the end of the current century there will be more than ten Somalis for every Hungarian, a forty-fold relative increase. And that is despite decades of war and famine in the Horn of Africa. Although we have taken these two countries somewhat randomly, any pair of countries, European and sub-Saharan, would tell a similar story. While Europeans are failing to replace themselves, Africans are continuing in the main to have big families while rudimentary improvements to their living standards are seeing death rates plummet – especially among infants – and numbers balloon.
It is not just a question of Africans and Europeans. Much of the world outside sub-Saharan Africa now has falling or low fertility and the prospect of population decline. Japan is already losing nearly 400,000 people a year. In big Indian cities, women are already having well below the number of children required for long term population stability.
They may want three things – first the continuation of lifestyles involving small family size, second economic growth, third the continuing persistence of the majority ethnic group. They can have any two but not all three of those.
It is not impossible that some of these trends could reverse, but much is already baked in. Even if fertility rates fell in Africa (and in some places they are falling), there are decades of fast population growth in the pipeline. The cohort of young childbearing women is large, so even if they have fewer offspring each, they will still produce a huge generation. Meanwhile the elderly in countries like Somalia are a tiny cohort relative to the country as a whole, and so subtractions to the population through death will be minimal, ongoing strife notwithstanding. For a country like Japan, meanwhile, there is precious little sign of women having more children. But even if they did, today’s cohort of Japanese of childbearing age is small due to the small family sizes of their parents, while the elderly are numerous, and so deaths are bound to outstrip births.
This poses a trilemma not only to peoples of European origin, in Europe, North America and Australasia, but increasingly to East Asians too. They may want three things – first the continuation of lifestyles involving small family size, second economic growth, third the continuing persistence of the majority ethnic group (so in Japan, for example, there is little appetite for mass immigration and the multi-racial society it would bring). They can have any two but not all three of those things. If they keep small family size and fend off immigration, retaining majority dominance, they will have declining populations and almost inevitably declining economies. It is hard for an economy to grow while the number of people is falling. Japan, in a slump for thirty years, is the poster child for this, and China too now has a shrinking workforce. They can have small families and mass immigration, retaining economic dynamism, to a degree, but losing their current ethnic identities. Germany is a good case here. Only immigration prevents year-on-year population decline in Germany. Ultimately, however, if they want at least a chance of economic growth and do not want to embrace mass immigration and ethnic change, they will have to change their fertility patterns and have more kids.
The demonstrations, the falling statues and the media discourse all point towards a rising cosmopolitanism, a future in which ethnic majorities are eager to embrace minorities.
The countries of western Europe and North America have for the most part chosen the German path. Cities like London and Brussels contain an ethnic mix which some welcome and some dislike but none can deny is utterly unlike the situation a generation ago. But underneath the surface, majorities in the developed world are not relaxed about this. George Floyd’s death has given rise to mass demonstrations across Europe as well as North America and what we see on display is an outpouring of predominantly white remorse on the part of tens of thousands. What we do not see is what is going on among hundreds of thousands or millions who don’t turn out for the demos. The Anti-Brexit and Anti-Trump demonstrations have been vast, and yet we have Brexit and Trump. And nothing correlates as closely to a Brit wanting to leave the EU or an American wanting to ‘Make American Great Again’ than a concern about immigration and ethnic change.
The demonstrations, the falling statues and the media discourse all point towards a rising cosmopolitanism, a future in which ethnic majorities are eager to embrace minorities. The opinion polls and actual elections point in another direction suggesting, in the UK at least, tolerance and acceptance of minorities already here, but nervousness about ongoing ethnic change. It could of course go either way, but groups in terminal demographic decline do not usually go gentle into their good night; they are more likely to fight the dying of the light. This one is set to run and run.